The End Is Not Yet: A Woman of the Ynglings

I am a woman of the Ynglings. I do not complain. My report contains incidents unpleasant to me; I do not recount them to ask for sympathy, but as needed context.

I served in the expeditionary force in Korea, aiding the Japanese against the rebels there. I held the rank of Løytnant – a courtesy for the medical personnel; I was not in the line of command – assigned to a field hospital attached to the XV Ohio regiment. My work initially consisted mainly of medical supervision of interrogations. As the XV Ohio – regulars, not true Hirdsmenn, but good enough for counterinsurgency work – pacified its immediate area, I was assigned to running the goodwill clinic, whose purpose was to treat the natives for free and build up their trust. In the course of my duties there, I met Yngve Haraldsson, also ranked Løytnant, but in the regulars. He was assigned to the light duty of guarding the clinic while convalescing from his wounds. Although he was not a true Yngling, being American-born, I was impressed with his eugenic potential (*). He began to court me, after the fashion of his people, which is not the same as that of mine. But I had no brothers with me to set up booby traps and a picket line for him to infiltrate; so his manner suited me well enough.

We had been walking out for a month when the word came that Norway was again at war with China. The expeditionary force was therefore ordered to take ship across the Yellow Sea, land at Nantong, and raise again the Lion Rampant over that city, holding it against Chinese counterattack until reinforcements should arrive. This mission, it was plain for all in Korea to see, was suicide: The military bureaucrats at New Bergen had not considered that China, in the interval between the First Chinese War and this new one, had been busily building railroads, and could concentrate against Nantong far faster than they had concentrated against Jinan in the previous war. Worse, their soldiers were now armed with breech-loading rifles. But although they were only Americans, the regulars thought themselves Ynglings. They had their pride, and they marched to the ships.

The hospital, a unit of the true Hird and not in the regular line of command, could not be ordered to go with them. We would all have gone if asked; but the regular officers wished to save what could be saved from the disaster, and instead formally requested that we remain behind “until a controlled zone should have been established at Nantong” and second-line units could be brought in. Even true Ynglings do not march gladly to their deaths; we were all relieved when that word came. All, that is, but me; for Yngve would be sailing with the rest.

I knew that Yngve would not want me to join him in some quixotic attempt to die romantically together, and I respected his very sensible desire. I am a woman of the Ynglings, and not a flighty girl. I can count to two; two is greater than one; the loss of one does not make it necessary to sacrifice two. I swallowed my tears and made love to Yngve, hoping at least to bear his child and carry on his line. I held to that resolve until the ship carrying the XV was well over the horizon. Then, when I found I was not pregnant after all, my will broke.

I make no excuse. My actions were silly. I volunteered to go with the IX Appalachia, which was embarking then, as their regimental doctor. They were glad to have me and asked no questions; my superior officer, seeing that I was not rational on the subject, reluctantly gave his leave. He believed in the pagan gods; perhaps he thought me possessed by Freya. Perhaps I was.

We reached Nantong without incident, but I had no opportunity to see Yngve. Our regiments were posted to different sections of our defensive perimeter, and there was much to do; work was found for idle hands, even those of irregular female medical officers. The Chinese took only a month to mobilise for counterattack.

It was clear from the beginning that our position was untenable, outnumbered three to one in the middle of an unfriendly population. But the regular officers had known they would not be staying, and made preparations to ensure the retreat would be orderly – to save what they could, in other words. It is our boast in Norway that a man of the Ynglinga Hird is worth any three regulars. Perhaps so. But I should not care to find myself on a battlefield opposing them; nor did the Chinese. A fighting retreat is the most difficult of maneuvers. The Chinese dead piled up before our trenches, and the rats and crows fed well.

Our own casualties were light, relatively speaking, but steady, and I was kept busy sawing off shattered bones, disinfecting and debriding wounds, and dispensing mercy shots to the triaged. Then the retreat stopped, and things got worse. It wasn’t until much later that I learned the Chinese had managed to find a fleet somewhere and disrupt the orderly schedule of the evacuation. At the time, all I knew was that there were orders not to retreat further, the Chinese were getting very close, and the wounded were piling up faster than we could deal with them. When I found myself triaging arms shattered by bullets, which the day before I’d had time to amputate, I knew we were in trouble. Then a shell struck close to the surgery tent, knocking me unconscious.

I awoke to found myself being held at bayonet point by scruffy Chinese soldiers. I was in no shape to fight, and braced myself for unpleasantness, as best I could while vomiting up my last meal; but I was fortunate. Whether because they were disciplined, because I was wearing a blood-spattered greatcoat and short hair and they thought me male, or because they found vomit unattractive, all that happened was that they gestured me towards their rear with other prisoners, with only a few token blows from rifle butts. There were not many survivors.

I have recounted all this not because I think it interesting to anyone except myself, but merely to give context to what follows. At this point my report leaves behind the humdrum incidents of war that might happen to anyone, and enters the realm of the unusual.

We were marched towards the Chinese railhead in a group of perhaps twenty prisoners, guarded by five Chinese. In hindsight, I see that a concerted rush might have overwhelmed them. At the time I was too sick and dizzy from being knocked out to think of it. It was an effort to place one foot in front of the other. And I do not know that I would have chosen to lead such a rush; the Chinese were alert, with rounds up the spout and fingers on the trigger, and the first five to rebel would surely have been shot.

I am not completely certain what happened next. I heard a small explosion nearby, a mere firecracker compared to the Chinese bombardment but audible enough. Black spots appeared in front of my eyes. Before I lost consciousness again, I saw the other prisoners begin to wobble and fall. Whatever the chemical used, it was clearly wonderfully quick-acting.

I do not know how long I was out, but it must have been a considerable period, for I awoke refreshed, without the pounding headache and nausea from my previous bout with unconsciousness. I was in a bed in a small room, brick-walled, heated by a brazier. A man was watching me. He was small, hook-nosed but fine-boned. His skin was an odd colour, as though nature had intended it to be brown, but he had stayed indoors all his life and never tanned; it was not attractive. He said – speaking accented but fluent Norwegian – “Ah, you are awake at last. Now we will make sweet love into the night, yes?”

I could only blink. It was one thing too many: I had fought in a losing battle, been knocked unconscious twice in less than an hour, been captured by at least one and perhaps two sets of enemies, and had woken in a strange place to be propositioned by a complete stranger. For several seconds I could muster no sensible response, nor indeed any response. The stranger solved that for me by mistaking silence for consent. He swept aside my blanket with a grand gesture, smiling brilliantly; I was naked underneath it.

That was the best thing he could have done for me, because it cleared my head by giving me a plain action problem. I sat up abruptly and drove my elbow into his stomach; I didn’t have the leverage to make it a killing blow, but that was fine, I wanted to disable and capture. Fortunately, he didn’t know how to fight any more than your average rabbit. In short order I was sitting on top of him – no doubt giving him a grand view, but he wasn’t in any shape to appreciate it. He looked very strange; apart from having two black eyes and some other bruises, he clearly had no more idea what was going on than I did. I admit to taking a certain pleasure in not being the only disoriented one; in fact, I was feeling much better, having taken out quite a bit of frustration on this convenient target.

Nobody had come to his aid, although he had shouted quite freely in surprise and pain, so I concluded that we were alone and I could take my time in getting answers. I steeled myself to use harsh measures if necessary; I had supervised interrogations to ensure the health of the victims, and knew how it is done, but had never found them pleasant. But Zviad – such was his name – had no resistance in him.

It took me quite a while to understand his actions. Although he spoke good Norwegian and did not try to hide the truth – in fact, he believed that I had misunderstood something, and that as soon as he cleared up the misunderstanding we could get on with the order of the day – we thought too differently to communicate easily. I did manage to establish that he had knocked out my Chinese captors and their prisoners with a gas grenade, for the express purpose of rescuing me. He had then carried me to his base, well away from the active fighting, injected me with drugs to take care of my concussion, and waited for me to wake up. He expected that this treatment would make me eager to, as he put it, “make sweet love, with much tenderness”. He repeated this phrase several times, as though it might persuade me.

It took me some time to believe that this was his actual motivation; I thought he must be lying to cover up something else, although I couldn’t imagine what. If he had intended rape, he had certainly had ample opportunity to tie me up, and he had clearly been completely unprepared for resistance. But some gentle slapping around – nothing serious; the rebels in Korea would have laughed at me – convinced me he was quite sincere, and very strange. He actually wept when I hit him, more perhaps from confusion than pain, and it was this which made me believe him. Grown men do not cry at open-handed slaps one might use to discipline a child, not in any nation I know of; consequently, he was either mad, or from somewhere very strange indeed. And if he was mad, whence the very effective gas grenade and anti-concussion drugs?

We sat on the floor for many hours, and gradually I pieced together the story. Zviad had been born on the dark side of the Moon. An entire nation existed there, descended from settlers who had, some centuries ago, come out of Georgia, following the “Ascended One”. They tilled the lunar soil under great domes, burrowing into it to escape the harsh sunlight and harsher nights. They worshipped the Ascended One as the representative on Earth – or rather, on the Moon – of the Christian God; but its rule had grown distant, and it no longer conversed daily with any citizen who wished it, as had been the case in the past. Consequently its priesthood had grown powerful, and had imposed an ascetic, monastic rule – restoring, they claimed, the Order of their Earthbound ancestors. Therefore Zviad was still a virgin at twenty-four, and indeed I was the first woman (other than his mother, and that only before the age of five) he had spoken to, contact between the sexes being very strictly regulated.

I admit to feeling sorry for him when I finally comprehended this; I was his first woman, and I was sitting on top of him – still naked, remember – after having beaten him when he thought he was finally going to get laid. It turned out that his ideas of how women behaved were derived from books, and rather lurid, illicit romances at that. He had cast me as Damsel in Distress, and expected the traditional reward. At that point I decided that he was probably harmless, and let go of him, stretching to get the kinks out of my muscles – and, all right, I admit it, to watch his eyes bulge. But I stopped there, and made him find my clothes before we continued talking.

He had come to Earth in defiance of the priesthood’s edict, seeking some excitement in his life – anything other than another six years of twelve-hours-daily work and prayer before he could even speak to a woman, and then waiting until he was thirty-five to marry! He and a band of like-minded compatriots had sought out the ancient spaceships, had cannibalised many to repair a few, and had made their escape, landing in widely scattered areas, although still keeping in touch by radio. He had sought out China, he told me, because there was a war there and he had wanted to see it at close range, and intervene in favour of one side or the other – he had romantic ideas about adventure and glory. I was not clear on the methods he had used to spy on the war zone, but he had seen me being captured and had fallen in love with me on the spot – “A Valkyrie,” he described me excitedly. “A very warrior-woman out of the old stories, Anja Sigridsdatter come to life again!”

He was, in short, completely impractical, and so naively misinformed about Earth, about women, and about war as to verge on madness. He was also quite powerful, in his way; I could beat him to a pulp with bare hands, but his weapons were not limited to that. I knew about the gas grenades that would knock out within seconds, with no apparent ill effects. I knew that he had some means of looking at the war zone without exposing himself. Who was to say what other near-miraculous weapons or tools he might have? And he read romances; he had realised that I was not a Damsel in Distress, but he might easily decide to classify me as Playing Hard To Get or, even worse, Needing A Real Man To Show Her What A Woman Needs.

Killing is, of course, always an option; but I admit to a bit of squeamishness about killing a man for naivete and what he might do. Besides, he was a valuable source of intelligence. But we were behind enemy lines, and – not counting the expeditionary force being pounded to dust in Nantong – the closest friendly troops were hundreds of miles away, through hostile country where I, at least, didn’t speak the language; capture was not a practical option. As for escaping alone, that left him free to use his weapons; next time he might tie me up after the gas grenade hit. Seduction was obviously possible, but the thought made my skin crawl. I had absolutely zero desire to lie back and think of Norway under this grey-skinned, half-mad puppy.

In the end, I decided on cynical betrayal. I told him I was promised to another, which is true. I appealed to his sense of adventure and his desire to help the pretty woman, asking him to get Yngve out of Nantong for me – or at least, and I made my lip tremble the tiniest bit, his body. I hinted at gratitude. In short, I played him like a fiddle, and he ate it up. To enter a City Under Siege, at the behest of a Beautiful Maiden, to Rescue Her Lover – I could practically hear the capital letters going off in his mind. He still thought himself the hero of my story. I have no doubt he expected Yngve to die in some suitably dramatic fashion, and me to weep on his shoulder and seek comfort in his arms.

He left for the fighting front some hours ago, after showing me around the cottage he had taken for his base. I know, now, how he could see the fighting; he has a window, a screen of glass, which shows scenes far distant, through the eyes of flying instruments. There is still fighting at Nantong, and the XV Ohio in the thick of it. I saw Yngve, leading a company, or what was left of one, wielding a pistol in his left hand; his right was bandaged. I longed to go to him. But I am a woman of the Ynglings, and I know when a mission is more important than any individual’s life. The Circle at Dovre must know of the men in the Moon. I must escape; must find my way through the Chinese countryside to the Japanese lines in Manchuria; must make my way from there to Norway, bearing the word.

I shall break Zviad’s magical window, and steal as much of his other equipment as I can carry; the rest I will burn. Perhaps he will be killed by Chinese or Norwegian bullets; if not, I can hope I will have blinded him, and he will be unable to find me again. If he does, or if some other misfortune should find me in this enemy land – for that reason, I have written this narrative. China’s postal system is famed; I shall rob some peasant of the money needed for a stamp, and send a letter to the Norwegian Embassy in Indonesia. It may not get there. This is a war zone, and the censors will surely be curious about a letter in code, to an embassy of their enemies. But it is all I can add to my slim chance of escaping to make my own report.

It is time; I have said all that needs to be said, except this. If, by some miracle of war, Yngve should return to Norway alive, and I do not: I ask that whoever reads this missive find him, and tell him what I did, and why. He is a true Yngling, and will understand.

With love and duty,

Gunnhild Gudridsdottir.

(*) Note for those unfamiliar with the laconic speech patterns of the Dovre Ynglings: This is the narrator’s way of stating that she fell head-over-heels in love, even though her family would disapprove.

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